Nickie Rodica worries that Ruby's Fast Food, the name on the simple green-and-red sign outside his family's restaurant, might give the impression that the tiny storefront specializes in hot dogs and pizza puffs. "If you just walked by you might just assume it's regular fast food," he says.
Ruby Rodica is Nickie's mother, and the food she serves at this 13-year-old Filipino eatery in Albany Park isn't really fast—she begins cooking at 8 AM each morning and stays as late as midnight some nights. But when you walk in it's right in front of you, ready to go.
Ruby's belongs to the category of restaurants called turo-turo, or "point point," meaning that most everything available to eat is arranged on a steam table. You indicate what you want, Nickie or his older brother, Arnie, dishes it out, and you either take it to go or station yourself at a table and dig in. Despite the presence of a number of these buffet-style restaurants around town (home to almost 100,000 Filipinos by the 2000 census count), this incredibly diverse cuisine seems to be underappreciated by those who didn't grow up on it, especially compared to Korean, Thai, or Vietnamese.
Ruby's—which always seems to have a steady flow of traffic in and out the door—is a good place to go to school.
Ruby has a repertoire of more than 120 dishes, any one of which might make an appearance on the steam table on a given day. You might find soy-and-vinegar-braised beef, pork, chicken, or squid adobo; stewy peanut-sauced beef and tripe kare-kare; chunks of lechon kawali, deep-fried pork belly; fried whole mackerel; ginisang amaplaya, bitter melon sauteed with pork, tofu, and scrambled eggs; or pakbet (aka pinakbet), a vegetable medley cooked with pork fat and shrimp paste.
The rotation reveals the range of influences on Filipino cuisine, from Spanish (in the morcon, ham, cheese, and vegetables rolled up in beef) to Chinese (in the popular rice-noodle dishes pancit) to good ol' American (in the sliced hot dogs tossed with spaghetti and banana-ketchup sauce, a legacy of the American military presence in the Philippines).
Lots of items reflect the Filipino fondness for pig, whose many parts end up in a great number of dishes; offal shows up particularly often on the weekends, when customers of Ruby's catering demand it. There's no greater expression of this love than crispy pata—a dinosaur-size deep-fried pig's foot whose skin is so delicately crispy it shatters like glass when you take a bite, revealing multitextural veins of moist pork, melting fat, and luscious connective tissue. The only way to confront this behemoth, short of hoisting it directly to the mouth with both hands, is to tear it to pieces animal style, dipping chunks into the soy, vinegar, and chile dipping sauce or the thicker, sweet vinegar-garlic-and-sugar-based Mang Tomás All Purpose Sauce.
Ruby learned these recipes from her mother and grandmother growing up in Manila. Around the time she was seven, the family opened the first of five restaurants in office buildings, on street corners, and in residential neighborhoods. They made a point of never holding food overnight, so things were always freshly made.
Ruby took over the family business in 1978, when her parents emigrated to Canada, operating one restaurant after hours as a bar serving beer and barbecue. Over time she scaled back—as more family members emigrated she had a harder time finding help. Nickie remembers the final place she ran, a simple kiosk in front of her home in the Sampaloc district, where she sold essentials like soap, toothpaste, bags of rice, soft drinks, and a few takeaway hot dishes.
"My mom would be making pots of food for the neighborhood, for those who didn't have time to cook," says Nickie. "Every street pretty much had their own little kiosks. But people from other neighborhoods would go to ours."
Nickie was eight in 1991, when his mother and father, Florante, emigrated to Chicago, following his father's sister, who'd already settled here. Florante initially took a job at the Smith Kline Beecham clinical labs, Ruby as an auditor for a moving company.
"I was thinking, I will not do any more restaurants, because it's a lot of things to do," she says. "Especially if you don't have anybody else helping you here." But Ruby kept cooking in quantity, particularly for large family gatherings.
"People were like, 'Who's cooking all these things?'" says Nickie. That's how the catering business began. Eventually Ruby crunched some numbers and figured she could make more money with a restaurant. So she quit her job and opened for business on Montrose in 1997. Eventually Florante left his job too, and Nickie and Arnie, who'd always helped out, went full-time after graduating from college. For a while the whole family lived in an apartment above the restaurant.
They all pitch in on the cooking. Nickie handles desserts like the thick, eggy, flanlike cassava cake or the rainbow-layered, bean-studded shaved ice halo-halo. Arnie spearheads occasional weekend barbecues, charcoal-grilling marinated meat, sometimes out on the sidewalk. And Florante handles the lechon kawali and crispy pata—"things that are dangerous," says Nickie. "He has a lot of scars from frying all those things."
Ruby maintains control of the many stew-based dishes, such as the adobos, kare-kare, or the thick, offal-rich, beef blood dinuguan, "because we don't want to screw with them," says Nickie.
The restaurant opens at ten every morning except Monday, when it's closed, gets a rush at lunch, and closes by 7 PM. By then Ruby has decided what's going to be on the menu the next day, and the prep work begins. Weekends are busiest—they add on a lot of catering jobs, particularly for Filipino-owned home health-care companies. And that arm of the business explodes around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the family scrambles to fill orders for pineapple-and-brown-sugar-marinated hams.
In addition to the steam-table and catered specialties, the family offers standing items made to order like noodle dishes or tapsilog and three other -silogs—meat, fried rice, and fried egg combos commonly eaten for breakfast but served all day.
Still, it's the daily variety that's makes a turo-turo. "I guess in a way when people choose what they want to eat it's kind of like an art," says Nickie. "Some people like soup with something dry. Something saucy with something dry. A vegetable dish with a fish dish. Sometimes people like to just have two beef dishes. It just depends on what they're in the mood for. If people don't know what to choose, I offer. I tell them what goes well together."